Denzel Washington is one of Hollywood’s most distinguished and well-known actors, but surprisingly, his 30-year career has not once involved a sequel. That’s changing this weekend with The Equalizer 2, which finds the two-time Oscar winner stepping back into the role of Robert McCall, a former CIA black-ops agent whose retirement involves more than his fair share of extracurricular vigilantism.
When McCall’s colleague Susan (Melissa Leo) is betrayed and killed, McCall is drawn into a shadow war against a dangerous opponent. His new mission is complicated, however, by his newly established mentorship of neighborhood kid Miles (Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders), who relies on McCall’s wisdom to avoid getting wrapped up in gang activity.
Washington recently spoke to EW about reuniting with director Antoine Fuqua, his read on McCall as a character, and the real-life bond he forged with Sanders on set.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We’re talking just minutes after you screened The Equalizer 2 for the first time. What did you think?
DENZEL WASHINGTON: It was good! And even a bit of a tearjerker at the end, I think — a little sentimental. It’s always weird watching yourself, but Antoine did an excellent job.
It’s quite an emotional film in places.
When the guy’s sister comes walking out at the end, it’s like, “Oh man.” And as well, the dynamic between Robert and Miles, father-son.
What was it like to create that?
It was like that. It was like that. Because [Sanders is] a young kid who’s just coming up. And my own fatherly instincts kicked in! It was just great talking to him every day, to hear someone with everything still in front of them, their ideas, it was real fun. It was like adopting a son for a few months.
That idea is so powerful in the movie, and those specific scenes where you’re guiding him away from picking up a gun. What was it like to do those scenes with Ashton?
It was organic. I mean, it wasn’t necessarily written that way, and we took it up a notch with the gun business. But just that kind of relationship is perfect for this film.
And there’s so much in this film about trying to do good. Antoine, when we spoke, called Robert a “dark angel.” Does that resonate with you?
No, I don’t get into that, because it’s up to other people to call him what they want to call him. I don’t look outside of the character and say, “Oh, he’s this.” I don’t know how to play a dark angel. I don’t know what that means. But you make the movie, and then people call it what they want to call it.
What was it, then, that drew you back to this character?
It was relationships: my relationship with Todd Black, the producer, and with Antoine. Todd and I have done a lot of stuff over the years, and obviously Antoine and I have had great success. I won’t say this was the first time [a sequel] made sense. I haven’t been asked that much, actually, come to think of it. I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked at all. [Laughs]
It’s so interesting because there are so many sequels out there, and what I liked about Equalizer 2 is there’s a legitimate expansion of McCall here.
And for me, that’s the only reason. The only reason is there is a reason. Not just to go blow up some more stuff and run and jump around. There’s got to be some kind of story. The actor in me is hopeful there’s a good story.
And it makes a lot of sense where we find McCall at the opening of this film, driving Lyft to hear people’s stories and help them.
There are some great stories too. They cut out a couple, I guess for time, but there were some really good stories of the people I was driving around. I mean, he kept good ones in there as well. It was cool.
One thing Antoine and I discussed was that scene where Miles tells McCall to stop cleaning up their apartment complex, saying, “Someone else will do that,” and you say, “But they don’t.”
Oh yeah, yeah, I remember that. Richard Wenk wrote that, when I’m cleaning graffiti off that wall. He did such a great job of writing and reimagining that character.
How do you approach McCall?
I don’t look at it from the outside in. That’s for somebody else to do. I look at how he is, not at how he’s looked at. Does that make sense? I can’t play a character based on how others look at him.
What is the truth of Robert to you, then?
Oh, man. That’s not a simple answer. Obviously, he wants to help people and feels a need to do that. And obviously, the stakes are extremely high in this case.
Is there a change in him, in this movie?
I don’t know. I don’t see a difference.
So the good deeds that he performs, what’s the significance of them to that character, in your eyes?
I don’t think of things that way. Why it’s significant for him to do that. That’s not something I ever thought about. I just don’t look at things that way. It’s significant for all of us hopefully, to use our abilities to do some good in this world, and he has specific abilities and he uses them, for goodness’ sake. That’s what’s important — to Denzel — that I’m not just some guy running around blowing up people for no reason. There’s enough blood as there is.
That McCall is often trying to prevent violence.
You never see that more clearly than you do in the dynamic McCall has with Miles. Can you expand on what it was like for you, after working in Hollywood for more than 30 years, to team with an up-and-comer like Ashton Sanders?
It’s a natural for me. Even as a director, I’ve been involved in a couple of different — well, three different young people’s careers so far. It’s always fun for me to see what the young people are doing, and to pick this kid’s brain. He’s obviously coming off great success with Moonlight, a very intelligent young man — artistic, creative — and I was happy to see that he’s a well-rounded, good kid who’s just trying to get better as an actor. We talked a lot about that. I guess I owe him a call — as a father figure — just to see how he’s doing. [Laughs]
And this is your fourth film with Antoine Fuqua, after Training Day, the first Equalizer, and The Magnificent Seven. Why do you two keep coming back together?
We just work well together, and we’ve had great success together. I know he’s a wonderful filmmaker. We’ve had good success creatively and financially, business-wise. I enjoy working with Antoine. I’ve worked with three or four directors now three or four times: the late, great Tony Scott, Spike Lee, and Ed Zwick. It’s cliché, but it is about relationships, and the people you like working with, who you get along with. Life’s too short.
Having just seen this film in finished form for the first time, did any scene stand out to you?
The first one that comes in my mind, because it’s new, is Melissa’s big scene. I wasn’t there for that section, so to see how that all unfolded was a bit of a surprise. Brutal, but she fights them tooth and nail. She did her best.
Melissa’s character is double-crossed by the antagonist in this movie, and it’s interesting to consider McCall as a heroic figure, someone you can trust even in this world of smoke and mirrors.
And I think people go to the movies for that. They want to believe in someone or something, root for the good guy and boo the bad guys. I’ve got to see it now with an audience, because I want to see their reactions and what the ride is like.